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Jewish World Review Dec. 2, 1999 /23 Kislev, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Giving well --
I MUST CONFESS that I am not altogether polite to telemarketers who make the mistake of phoning my house at the dinner hour. Sure, there are evenings when my children are dining like little gentlemen. But the more usual situation is a bit more chaotic.

"Jonathan, did you ask to be excused? No? Well, sit down then! David, just try them. Everyone likes sweet potatoes. Ben, we don't make those noises at the dinner table. Jonathan, I thought I told you sit down? Ben, watch your elbow, you are about to knock your cup over! David, I'll reminisce about 'Toy Story 2' in a minute."

Ring, ring. "Hi, I'm calling from the Worthy Cause." I usually explain as civilly as possible that the call has come at an awkward moment. Some will apologize and hang up. Others will promise to call back later. But the very worst are those who refuse to take no for an answer. They are clearly trained to ignore the words "sorry" and "no" and "I prefer to make my charitable contributions another way," and barrel ahead with their prepared speech.

I do have a list of favorite charities and a clear conscience. But turning down all those entreaties at the dinner hour leaves a bad taste just the same.

(For a while, I tried saying yes, though I was skeptical that the money would be put to good use, just to get off the phone more quickly. But, of course, it only led to more calls.)

In any case, for those who take their giving seriously, Philanthropy magazine has performed a public service. It has offered a list of 16 small charities that are making an enormous difference in the lives of needy Americans. Because these charities are small and non-bureaucratic, you can be reasonably certain that your money will go to the intended beneficiaries and not to some conglomerate.

RAFT, the Resource Area for Teachers, hit upon the idea of recycling materials businesses no longer need and donating them to teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Computers that are no longer cutting edge -- that is, more than a year old -- have been donated by Silicon Valley firms and have found good homes in schools. Other businesses have donated office supplies, furniture, packing materials, bulletin boards, even T-shirts and watches.

Founded by a former elementary school teacher, RAFT provides the raw materials that spur creativity on the part of teachers. Leftover fabrics can make great costumes for school plays, plastic dye casts can be used in science experiments, and all sorts of contributions can be turned into art supplies.

In Los Angeles, teacher Rafe Esquith knew that the kids in his classes needed something more than the schools were giving them. And so he began an after-school program in Shakespeare -- helping his 5th- and 6th-graders to read eight of the Bard's plays each year. He also trains the kids at Hobart School -- 80 percent of whom come from alcoholic and otherwise unhealthy families -- to learn the virtue of hard work. A sign over the blackboard reads, "There are no shortcuts." Though he rises every day at 4:30 to walk to work (he does not own a car), Esquith also teaches a Saturday morning class that combines literature with SAT preparation. The academic attainments of his students have been stupendous, with many going on to Ivy League and similarly selective colleges.

The Cornerstone School of Alabama is a spin-off of the Detroit trailblazer.

Like the original, the Alabama branch of the school takes children from terrible neighborhoods and family situations and gently but firmly places them on the road to success. With small classes, a back-to-basics curriculum, intensive tutoring and individualized education plans, Cornerstone brings even students who had been several grades behind up to grade level. The children who start their education at Cornerstone at age 3 score in the 90th percentile nationwide. But academic performance is only half the story. Cornerstone also sees its mission in moral terms, and each month attempts to instill a different virtue -- honesty, respect, compassion, and so on.

There are many more. To read about more about Philanthropy's picks, see their website at, or phone them at 202-822-8333.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate